Back to school: doing things differently in a pandemic

As campuses in Tamil Nadu are scheduled to open for students of Classes 10 and 12 on Tuesday, schools are in a tizzy about conducting classes and ensuring a safe and hygienic space in adherence to COVID-19 norms

Updated - January 17, 2021 01:08 am IST

Published - January 17, 2021 01:04 am IST

Step by step: Workers at the Everwin School in Kolathur disinfecting a classroom in preparation for the reopening of its campus for Classes 10 and 12.

Step by step: Workers at the Everwin School in Kolathur disinfecting a classroom in preparation for the reopening of its campus for Classes 10 and 12.

After a gap of nearly 10 months, school campuses in Tamil Nadu will finally throw open their doors to a section of students from Tuesday. Schools in the State were asked to shut their campuses when the first national lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic was announced on March 24, 2020.

For the students, staff and school managements, the wait has been one filled with doubts, challenges, uncertainties and new lessons. The Tamil Nadu government had in November 2020 mooted the reopening of schools for students of Classes 9 to 12. But this did not materialise following concerns from both schools and parents on the health and safety aspects involved.

The number of COVID-19 cases has significantly decreased since then and with growing concerns surrounding the future course of action for students of Classes 10 and 12, who will have to take their board examinations in March, the State government once again proposed the reopening of schools for these students alone.

While official orders to this effect had been passed by the Tamil Nadu government, based on positive feedback from parents and schools, there is a lot to consider and implement in order to secure the health and safety of both the staff and students on campus. It was not too long ago that colleges reopened and the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras cluster emerged — underlining the need to be especially vigilant in institutions that have hostels and messes.

Tamil Nadu is not the first State to take a decision to reopen schools for senior students. Schools and PU colleges reopened for Classes 10 and 12 in Karnataka from January 1, with several precautionary measures in place. Many private schools in the State were, however, reported to have continued with online classes instead of calling students back to campus.

This was attributed to both safety concerns as well as being unable to afford the cost of implementing all the guidelines mandated in the standard operating procedures (SOPs) laid down by the State.

Guidelines ready

The Tamil Nadu government released a detailed set of guidelines and has been holding meetings with school heads in every district to brief them. With the board examinations approaching fast, many schools are expecting a majority of students to return to campus.

“Our first priority will be to get the campus ready, keeping the SOPs in mind, for the students and the staff. While we are planning to call teachers to the school from January 19, students will be called a week later. We are also planning to invite parents to the campus to see the measures we have implemented,” P.G. Subramanian, principal, Bhavan’s Rajaji Vidyashram, Chennai, said.

M. Aruna Kumari, principal, The TVS School, Madurai, said they have planned to open multiple gates for the entry and exit of students. “We are allowing only 50% of our students to attend classes everyday. We have also planned to have half-day shifts for students,” she said.

“We will also have to ensure that students do not exchange food, handkerchiefs or face masks amongst themselves. Stickers on tables will indicate where students should sit. This will help the teachers track the students easily,” said R. Murugeswari, headmistress of Kasturbai Gandhi Corporation Girls Higher Secondary School.

Schools have further been asked not to conduct assemblies or mass gatherings of any kind. But the major challenge for teachers is to ensure physical distancing norms during lunch breaks and other short breaks in between classes.

The headmaster of a school in Virudhunagar said they should be allowed to take a decision on school timings. “The best solution would be to have students come in two shifts in a day. If students work in different sessions — morning and afternoon — they need not bring lunch to school,” he added.

In Vellore district, officials said a major challenge would be to allay fears among parents about sending their children to school. “We will be taking written consent from them before we allow children to come to class,” said K. Gunasekaran, Chief Educational Officer (CEO), Vellore.

Officials from the Education Department in Coimbatore district, too, said parents would not be forced to send their children to schools and that the teachers would not conduct any examinations for the students in the initial period. “Schools have been instructed to continue online classes for those students whose parents are not willing to send them,” the official added.

With the State government mandating that not more than 25 students can be seated in a classroom at a time, most schools are planning to simultaneously stream the lessons online, especially for classes with huge numbers. “Schools will utilise the classrooms that are vacant to split students into smaller batches,” said R. Visalakshi, president, Tamil Nadu Private Schools Association.

At the Campion Anglo – Indian Higher Secondary School, Tiruchi, where 62 students have enrolled in the arts stream for Class 12, a large room, enough to accommodate 200 students, is being readied as a classroom. “Instead of deploying more teachers, the hall will be utilised by the students,” said Simon Sugumar, principal.

The Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) has announced that the board examinations would begin from May 4 for Classes 10 and 12, and that schools have been given the flexibility to start conducting practical examinations on campuses from March 1. With campuses having remained shut throughout the academic year, no laboratory work has happened. Once schools reopen, this is one aspect that teachers would be focusing on.

“For State board students, and especially students from government schools who have not had any online classes, we will initiate laboratory and practical work only when we are given some clarity about the reduced syllabus. Teachers are expecting some reduction in the number of experiments and the record work that needs to be completed,” said Patric Raymond, a chemistry teacher and the general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Graduate Teachers Federation.

As a part of the SOPs issued for reopening schools, the government had specified a host of safety measures to be followed in the laboratories on campus as well. But teachers feel that only a week after the schools reopen would they have an idea about how many students were opting to come for physical classes. They can then plan out a schedule for practical work.

Meanwhile, students in residential schools from Classes 10 and 12 have been allowed to come back, and the State government has issued guidelines.

“Apart from following guidelines, including compulsory mask-wearing at all times and the strict enforcement of physical distancing norms, the main focus for residential schools will be dormitories and dining halls,” said C. Satish, director, Paavai Group of Institutions.

Mr. Satish said while students were usually allowed to eat breakfast in their hostel mess between 7.30 a.m. and 8.30 a.m., they would now be allotted staggered timings to ensure that there is no crowding. “Since it is just going to be students of Classes 10 and 12 for now, we can ensure that they are spread across dormitories as well,” he said.

All the washrooms in the hostel, too, would be opened up for students so that there is no crowding. “After schools reopen for Class 10 and 12, we will have to chalk out a plan as to how we can enforce these guidelines when more students come back, and how we should make infrastructural changes to accommodate this,” Mr. Satish added.

Ganesh Moorthy, CEO, Salem district, which is home to several residential schools, said schools were being instructed to prevent crowding in study halls, apart from washrooms and dining halls.

“Schools have been advised to permit two students in four-sharing rooms and one in two-sharing rooms in the hostels. A thorough disinfection of the hostel premises will have to be carried out when students are out attending classes,” Mr. Moorthy said.

Access to online classes

While several private schools were able to easily make the switch to online learning, the same was not true for students from economically backward sections as well as from rural areas, who have had to grapple with both access and connectivity issues.

“Most of our students have not watched the televised lessons aired on Kalvi TV. We will have to start teaching them from scratch after reopening the schools,” said K. Balamurugan, a Tamil teacher at the Government Higher Secondary School in Sholavandan. Many government students had taken up odd jobs to financially support their families when the schools were closed, he added. “We will now have to call the students individually and ensure that they attend the classes after schools reopen,” Mr. Balamurugan said.

S. Kannappan, Director of School Education, said guiding students and ensuring that they were in the right frame of mind took precedence over rushing to complete portions.

“Our focus is on two aspects — that the students and the staff are aware about the safety measures to be followed and to ensure that students get the right guidance and psychological support since many of them are coming back to school after a long break,” he said.

(With inputs from S. Sundar and P.A. Narayani in Madurai, Vivek Narayanan in Vellore, Vignesh Vijayakumar in Salem, R. Akileish in Coimbatore, S.P. Saravanan in Erode, and Kathlene Antony and C. Jaishankar in Tiruchi)

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